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Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that among the many grievous problems to which he is drawing the House's attention are those associated with the serious decline in the housing

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stock and the communities where these properties are to be found? Is he aware that other hon. Members are trying to persuade the Department to move on this issue? Leeds district council is acting, with others, as a lead authority to bring about these changes.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention, because Leeds has many examples of good practice. UNIPOL has done a tremendous amount to vet student accommodation in the Leeds area, and has now become a major landlord. Leeds, Lancaster and Teesside city councils have some superb schemes on the go, and they should be extended across the country, so that there is a commonality of quality rather than just isolated pockets of excellence.

Housing costs affect not only students but the poorest members of our society, who, like the poorest students, spend a greater proportion of their income on housing costs but have the least choice.

I should like the Minister to respond to three issues: the legal definition of a house in multiple occupation; the licensing of HMOs and other rented properties; and the enforcement of health and safety regulations for all student properties, including HMOs.

The present confusion about the legal definition of what comprises an HMO must be resolved. Section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 states that an HMO is

Between 1969 and 1995, an HMO was deemed to include student houses, which traditionally account for 56 per cent. of student accommodation. However, the Court of Appeal in the Barnes v. Sheffield City Council judgment ruled against that assumption, and, in effect, withdrew enforcement protection for a large body of students.

Sheffield city council had ordered the owners of a terraced house occupied by five female students to install fire escapes and other fire precautions. The owners refused, arguing that their property was not an HMO, so the council had no powers to insist on the improvements. Despite the fact that the students pursued entirely separate life styles, the court decided that it was a single household and not a house of multiple occupancy, because the students shared the facilities, had signed similar tenancy agreements, shared responsibility for cleaning and did not have locks on their doors. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the vast majority of local authorities with large populations of students saw that judgment as an unscrupulous landlords' charter and roundly condemned it.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of Sheffield. Several thousand of my constituents are students who live in such accommodation. Does he share my view that a proper, enforceable system of licensing would benefit not only students, but the host community, which wants high-quality housing in the area, not unscrupulous landlords who allow housing to fall into disrepair?

Mr. Willis: My hon. Friend echoes the comments made by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best). This issue is not just about students; it affects large areas, particularly the towns and cities with major student populations. Under the 1985 Act, local authorities can

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have a registration scheme if they so wish. However, large areas are excluded from registration, even under the current legislation. That anomaly should be sorted out.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I appreciate my hon. Friend's raising of this issue. I would be interested to know whether he agrees with me that a fourth issue that should be tackled is the practice of universities that have irresponsibly encouraged more and more students to come to areas where they are located without having the proper housing resources and without the local authority or the community being able to absorb those students in suitable accommodation. Until that issue is addressed, we will be plagued by this problem across the nation.

Mr. Willis: I have tried not to get into that complex and difficult subject. My hon. Friend is right: the expansion of the student population in the past 10 years has overburdened some of our towns and cities. Universities have more often than not said that accommodation and the social well-being of students are not their responsibility. They are opting out of that responsibility, and that is a major problem.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): There is another widespread problem, which certainly affects Southampton. Institutes of higher education have attempted to build accommodation for students to take them out of the housing market, but they have done so on disadvantageous borrowing terms, with the result that the hall fees are high. Either students are being driven back into the private rented market, or universities and colleges are tempted to cut corners in order to meet the costs that they have themselves incurred.

Mr. Willis: Indeed, an enormous number of problems are arising. I know from a survey that I completed recently that one London university has refurbished a block principally to attract what I would call private sector guests during the summer, and now charges students£114 a week. I challenged that university: was it right for student accommodation to be treated in that way? I was simply told, "We have enough takers in London." I do not think that is the right attitude. Student accommodation is there to support students and their education.

The Barnes v. Sheffield City Council judgment was a landmark. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), a former housing spokesperson who is now the Minister for Energy and Industry, was quoted thus in the Yorkshire Post of 10 May 1995:

The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), then president of the National Union of Students, said:

    "This looks like a green light to treat students as second-class tenants".

How right they both were. Immediately, local authorities with large student populations saw an increase in lettings on a shared basis to evade health and safety regulations. In response to a recent survey by Shelter, Nottingham city council said:

    "Many landlords locally are very aware of the Barnes judgement. This is very worrying as it creates a 'sham' situation which is potentially dangerous to tenants".

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Perhaps the most disturbing effect of the Barnes judgment, however, has been local authorities' reluctance to use their HMO powers to inspect shared houses or enforce standards because of their fear of losing their case in the courts. They have good reason: only last year, Islington council lost a similar case in the Rogers v. Islington Council judgment, although I am pleased to say that it is appealing that judgment.

Many tragedies have occurred because of the failure of licensing and regulation. In Australia, all properties available to let to non-related family members, whether in discrete units or as a household, must be licensed. Such a simplification of the law is required here: all properties offered to let should be subject to mandatory licensing and inspection. That would immediately remove the loopholes that currently allow unscrupulous landlords to avoid their responsibilities for health and safety, and would end the absurd situation in which shared houses are not covered by existing regulations. As in any other workplace, the landlord would be responsible in law to those who used his premises; and university accommodation, which is currently exempt from requirements for independent registration and inspection, would lose that exemption.

There is an urgent need to replace the cumbersome framework for regulating standards in the private and public rented sectors, but that cannot be done until we have an effective licensing system. I hope that is what the Government had in mind when they promised a consultation document on the shape of licensing earlier this year. Can the Minister assure us, without prejudicing the outcome of that document, that the consultation will be about all rented accommodation, not just existing HMOs? Can he assure us that the present system under which universities are exempt from local authority HMO registration requirements will be ended, and that the practice of self-regulation will also be abandoned? In short, can he assure us that all student accommodation will come into the same broad category as other similar rented accommodation, and that it will not be assumed that universities or colleges do things better?

Finally, may I plead with the Minister to simplify the whole regulation and inspection framework? Local authorities have powers of entry to registered properties, under part IV of the Housing Act 1985, to require works to make houses safe and fit for human habitation. The Health and Safety Executive has powers to enforce the requirements of the gas safety regulations, but has not enough resources to inspect adequately. Trading standards authorities have powers to enforce furniture and furnishings regulations, but have no powers of entry. It is small wonder that responsible landlords throw up their hands in horror, and irresponsible landlords hide behind the confusion.

Local authorities should act as one-stop shops to enforce all the regulations during a single inspection. That would cut costs, increase efficiency, build up relationships with landlords and, above all, ensure that tenants were fully protected.

I suspect that little separates the Minister and me in terms of our objectives for the protection of students and other members of the public. We look to him to end the confusion over HMOs, and to fully license and regulate all rented student properties.

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